Efforts to stop the novel coronavirus’s spread have brought about serious challenges for restaurants and entire the hospitality industry, forcing businesses to pivot toward takeout and delivery, temporarily shut down, or close completely. In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker has extended the stay-at-home order through the end of April. As the closures have extended from weeks to months, owners have been forced to make difficult decisions regarding finances, staffing, and safety.
In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them how they are moving forward, working to maintain strong communities, and trying to care for others.
Ben Arnstein owns and operates Kaliflower, a fast-casual restaurant with made-to-order rice bowls and salads on Michigan Avenue. He’s offering meals via third-party delivery and selling gift cards. Arnstein hopes to open multiple locations, but the pandemic has slowed those plans.
“Our restaurant team is filled with the most hospitable and hardest working people I could have ever dreamed of finding. They provide the best service to our customers day after day. But at the time they need us the most, we cannot fully provide for them. This situation has moved faster than I personally ever thought possible. It is very unlikely we will survive to see the other end of this. Personal failure does not keep me up at night. Rather, I am saddened to not do better by our investors and our operating team who turned my lifelong dream into a reality. My priority now is to protect health benefits for employees and preserve jobs for our salaried team. We ensured our hourly team has alternative employment, because we frankly cannot afford to continue paying them despite our best intentions.
A person’s true character is exposed when the situation turns dire, and this particularly dire one has proved that I have the strongest team in the world. Each has echoed the same sentiment: ‘We are willing to personally sacrifice in the short term if it might mean having Kaliflower to return to when this is all over.’ I do not know if we will make it to the other side, but I sure as hell hope we can make their sacrifice and commitment worth it.”
Bill Jacobs operates Wicker Park’s Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, one of Chicago’s oldest brewpubs. Jacobs and his staff were offering pizzas for curbside pickup and delivery in the early days of the pandemic-related closures, but last week decided to temporarily cease all operations.
“Personally, I’m hanging in there. I’m doing okay, and I’m fortunate to be in the position that I’m in, but I really feel for my staff and the folks I had to lay off. I have to say, it was the most painful thing that I’ve experienced in all these years of business, and I’ve been in restaurant business since 1983, and since 2001 with Piece...I will say we are going to get through this situation, for sure. This is a really troubling time for all of us but we have to stay positive and take care of each other. We have to have sense of humor — we have to laugh a lot. It’s just how we have to deal with these situations, to help us get through it. I’ve never been a big Facebook person, but this is a good time to try and connect and make people laugh. Connection is everything in life: it’s community, it’s showing each other that we care. We’re in this thing together. We’re a resilient bunch, as Chicago and as a people.”
Chef Abe Conlon co-owns Logan Square’s Macanese restaurant Fat Rice with partner Adrienne Lo. They have temporarily closed the restaurant, and are now working to feed hospitality industry workers with pay-what-you-can meal kits.
“This is not the time to have fear. Restauranteurs, chefs, the entire engine that makes this go are the most resourceful, thoughtful people in the world and we’re the ones that can make a difference if we’re making the right decisions quickly...I think that there are a lot of people in shock, nationwide, worldwide. Any food based business that people have put their heart and soul into, in a matter of 72 hours — poof, it’s gone. It’s hard for people to recognize and think clearly. l think it’s important to stay calm and make decisions with clear thinking. I think this is a time that we go back to the original reasons we started our restaurants, to please people, to serve people and community. Keeping to that ethos, the most important thing is that we’re kind to one another. Walking down the street, we can still say hi but need to keep social distancing, and that’s okay. I think that people shouldn’t take that lightly, like, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ We should be following what the CDC is telling us to do and that’s it. I know even with what I’m doing there’s still risk involved, but in delivery options there are a hundred variables. The more we can reduce variables, the better off we all will be.”